WORLD AFFAIRS.  The most striking thing about Lviv, Kyiv, and a number of small towns and villages I’ve recently visited is their normalcy. Walk down the streets or dirt roads and you’d never think Ukraine’s economy is depressed and that the country is at war. A village church I visit is full of people dressed in their Sunday best. Lviv’s cafes are packed. Kyiv’s main drag, the Khreshchatyk, is as fashionable as before Russia’s onslaught.

But that’s just the outward appearance. Talk to people and their current or impending economic travails—inflation, stagnant wages, corruption, and the growing cost of gas and electricity—quickly come to the fore. Talk a little longer and the war in the east soon becomes a topic of conversation.

The appearance of normalcy is both a façade and a coping mechanism. People know full well that times are hard and that soldiers are dying—usually one or two a day, sometimes up to four or five a day. They know that Vladimir Putin and his proxies are threatening to unleash a devastating war against Ukraine and kill thousands more.

Ukrainians seek to live as normally as possible, as if all were well. In their memoirs, Soviet gulag inmates claimed to do the same, trying to recreate some semblance of everyday familiarity in their otherwise dreadful lives. A friend tells me he only reads the good news. Another focuses all her attention on her grandchildren. A villager worries about the tomatoes she’s planted.

“The war has forced our ambivalent elite to consider genuine reform,” says a political analyst in Kyiv. “If it hadn’t been for Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, the Maidan would probably have ended with a return to the status quo ante.”

“Putin as the promoter of Ukraine’s reforms?” I say. “Putin as Ukraine’s nation builder?”

“Exactly,” my interlocutor smiles. “But we still have a long way to go. True, Russian speakers have now been integrated into the nation, but the language question still remains. It’s just been bracketed for the time being. The problem is that Russian speakers still don’t get that Ukrainian speakers also have rights. They assume everyone should naturally prefer Russian.”

I witnessed an example of this mind-set the day before. A friend and I went to a popular Kyiv coffee shop. She asked the young boy serving us to speak Ukrainian. When asked politely, wait staff invariably switch to Ukrainian. This one refused. “Why?” she asked. “Can’t you speak Ukrainian?” “I can,” he responded, “but I won’t.”

His behavior strikes me as incomprehensible. If addressed in English, he’d probably respond in broken English. Address him in an “inferior” tongue, however, and he’ll refuse to use it, even though he knows how. I know the comparison is overdrawn, but I can’t help think of what blacks must have experienced when they were refused service in the Jim Crow South.

What mystifies me, however, is why some kid should make such a big deal of language use. “In America,” I explain to him afterwards, “waiters try to adapt to clients’ cultural and linguistic preferences because they know that’ll get them a bigger tip.” “Sorry,” he says—in Russian.

Almost everyone in Ukraine believes that absolutely nothing has changed in the last year. The “absence of reform” has become a mantra. The pervasiveness of the view is understandable. People’s lives have gotten worse, and may get even worse before they start to improve. The press has become freer and reports constantly on official malfeasance, creating the impression that corruption is on the rise. The war in the Donbas looks like it’s going to be permanent. And the government has poorly communicated its intentions—thereby underscoring Ukrainians’ innate mistrust of the authorities.

A journalist points to Mikheil Saakashvili’s “brilliant” image-building in Odessa Province, which, as its newly appointed governor, he’s promised to clean up. Georgia’s former president has even taken to using public transport to commute to work. Why doesn’t Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, occasionally visit some popular eatery and have a plate of potato pierogis with the common folk? I ask. “Good question,” she says.

A businessman in Lviv tells me things are changing. “They’re not demanding bribes as brazenly as before,” he says. “The fear of getting caught or exposed in the media seems to be having some effect.” Local budgets are also being increased, and the result is much-needed repairs to Ukraine’s awful roads. A resident of a dreadfully depressed Western Ukrainian town notes that one of its pockmarked roads is finally being fixed.

People’s patience is wearing thin, or so they say. Reforms have taken place—in education, in law enforcement, in the army, and in the economy—but their immediate effect on people’s lives has been either insignificant or negative. A radical decentralization of authority and budgets is in the works, but it won’t be fully complete for another two years.

A university administrator in Lviv tells me that “Poroshenko could be ousted by the end of the year, especially as winter approaches and people find they have no money to pay their bills.” In contrast, the Kyiv-based analyst doesn’t expect a third Maidan. “There’ll be localized demonstrations, but there’s none of the deep moral outrage that led to the Orange and Euro revolutions.”

“For all its faults, the current government is nothing like the Yanukovych regime,” an American journalist tells me, speaking of the previous government. “We could easily trace the lines of theft and corruption under [Viktor] Yanukovych. There’s no evidence of anything like that at present.”

An article in the Ukrainian-language weekly Tyzhden notes that, when it comes to the economy, people believe either that “all is lost” or that “we’ve won.” In fact, the author argues, both claims are true. Macroeconomically, Ukraine is on the way to recovery. Microeconomically—which is where the average citizen lives—life has gotten harder.

That dialectic is evident in all aspects of Ukrainian life.

Ukraine is changing, rapidly and significantly—partly as a result of the Maidan revolution, partly as a result of Putin’s mad war, partly as a result of pressure from Ukrainian civil society, partly as a result of pressure from the West, and partly as a result of the efforts of Ukraine’s “ambivalent” elites.

But change is always disruptive, even, or especially, if its ultimate effect is positive. And change is always viewed as either insufficient or excessive.

The griping in Ukraine will continue. The elites will continue to move the country in the right direction—too slowly for some, too quickly for others. In about a year or two, I’m betting Ukraine won’t just look normal. It’ll actually be normal.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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